If you belong to the fraternity of naval wargamers who "spread out on the floor fighting with miniature warships", you may want to slide the board games back under the bed. Fighting Steel is a two-fisted graphical wargame that will satisfy your big ship cravings. Brought to you by the folks who sponsored the classic subsim Silent Hunter, Fighting Steel comes off the ways at flank speed with the focus on big ship engagements at sea from 1939 to 1942.
As soon as you peel the shrink-wrap from the box, you can't help but notice this game has a decent player's manual. Unlike Jane's Fleet Command's anorexic guide, Fighting Steel packs a lot of interface instructions, gameplay details, history, and information in 120+ pages. The back cover has a nifty hot key guide as well. General population gamers shy away from the old style Jane's manuals that contained 400+ pages, but no one wants to learn to play a game using the "how's this work?" approach. The developers of FS are very proud of all the features of their wargame. They provide a first-class manual that does everything you need it to; it gets you started, explains all the options, details, and features, and ensures you get maximum enjoyment from the game.
SSI scripted two adequate tutorials to get you started. The interface is well though-out and user-friendly, but this game has quite a few features, settings, and controls and reading the manual helps a lot. Most are clearly labeled and many have nice pop-ups. Still, there are some settings that don't command your attention at first. I couldn't figure out why my ships kept turning in circles to go left until another player pointed out the right/left arrow in the compass was a selectable control. There are no controls that require a high level of mouse-clicking--always a plus. You will need that energy. There are a number of scenarios and a campaign series to immerse yourself in. You can play either side of an engagement, at varying difficulty levels, and even choose your ship's cammo.
The box touts the "most visually stunning" graphics ever. Don't believe it. The graphics are good, not state-of-the-art, and it takes a lot to stun this reviewer. It's like having a pretty girlfriend and proclaiming her the most beautiful woman ever (in my case it's true--honest!). The proper perspective for the graphics in Fighting Steel is smooth motion, moderately detailed vessels, passable fire effects, and a really tired ocean. Nothing to turn your nose up at. The scenarios begin with a historical video that sets the stage for each battle. The graphics in the animated cut scenes are really good. If the gameplay graphics were this good, SSI could claim "stunning visuals". You will appreciate the blast marks and shell holes on battered ships, the way ships recoil during firing their main batteries, and other nice touches.
One feature that augments the graphics to great effect is the flying camera. You are allowed several options to control the 3D camera and during battle, it swiftly follows your command. What's neat is you can set it to "glide" from ship to ship; unlike other sims where clicking on a vessel brings an abrupt change, in FS when you select a different ship the camera leaves the present vessel and skims across the water to the new one. Really nice! You can set the camera to automatically disengage from what you are doing to show you an action scene, like a battleship getting blasted or a cruiser sinking. The developers thoughtfully included several settings so you can decide how much interruption is too much.
So we know how it looks, what does it sound like? Very good. For once in a sim, a big gun sounds like a big gun. They fire with a seismic boom that echoes and rolls across the virtual waves. The intensity seems to vary with how close in you bring the camera. In addition, you can hear the waves, some engine sounds, whistling shells if your selected ship is under fire, and some crashing noises (including that funky "rattling can" sound you heard in Silent Hunter). Close in on a burning cruiser and you can hear the fires crackle. The crew pipes in from time to time with updates, speaking in German, American, British, or Japanese accents accordingly. Too bad SSI didn't include some background noise to simulate a frenzied control room; a few side conversations, people noises, and reports barked in the background would be nice. They did include a passable soundtrack.
In actual contact, events develop rapidly and unforeseen events occur at the worst moments. Unfortunately, Fighting Steel replicates this by crashing to the desktop almost every other game. I was able to pinpoint the crashing to some related actions, like firing star shells in the Savo Battle scenario. Other times after putting in an hour maneuvering and exchanging shells, my hard drive would stutter a mechanical "uh-oh!" and I would be staring at the Gateway logo on my desktop. On one occasion I got a complete lock-up. Other players have reported lock-ups and crashes as well, so I am affirmed that my experience isn't isolated. As the news spread in the naval sim players community, SSI and DBZ took a preemptive strike and released several patches, culminating in patch v1.10 beta (see PATCHES & MISSIONS). This eliminated most if not all of my crashes (finally got those star shells off). The autosave feature will see you through any disruptions that do occur. The game autosaves as often as every five minutes, so if you crash, you can reload and press on. SSI stresses the latest drivers to minimize the crashing and some players report marked improvements after updating their drivers. Along with the patch, additional tips to get and keep FS running can be found here in TACTIC & TIPS.
Fighting Steel has a lot of realism options and management controls. Don't ask what all you can do, ask me what you can't do. You can launch torpedoes, choosing your spread; you can fire main and secondary guns, allocating them independently for your targets, specifying types of ammo; you can detach ships from the division and send them on strike excursions; you can lay down smoke screens, choose division formations, illuminate targets.... About the only thing you cannot do is direct damage control. You can monitor it but the AI handles the dirty details that a real divisional commander wouldn't stoop to do. The game has several speeds above normal but you won't use them much once battle starts. Fighting Steel will keep you plenty busy without turning into a clickfest.
Fighting Steel uses historical information as the model for ships' performance and firing capabilities. In this you are assured way more realism that Fleet Command. The manual explains much of the historical models, such as the Japanese lack of emphasis on damage control, and the horrific performance of American torpedoes in the 1939-42 period (80% dud rate! but you have an option to ignore the model).
One extra step the developers took was to wisely include their reasons behind the scope and features of this game. Why is it limited to a three year time period of a six year war? Why are carriers, aircraft, and submarines omitted? Simply, the creators of Fighting Steel wanted to recreate the battles at sea of the capital ships in their heyday, which was principally 1939-42. During this period, very few surface battles were impacted by planes or subs. One can also realize that there are limitations to time, resources, and coding for a sim and you can't have it all. I've sat in on Internet chats with players and developers and considering the range of details players badger the developers with, it would take a million programmers pounding on a million compilers for a million years to get something everybody would be 100% satisfied with. Just remember the next time you wolf down a Big Mac, it ain't filet mignon but you're quite happy to eat it. FS, admittedly several rungs above McDonalds in quality and value, focuses on a particular type of naval battle and does it well. Who knows, if it sells well enough, maybe in a year or two, Fighting Steel II will cover more ground, so to speak. But this reviewer applauds the candid and interesting section of the manual that covers this. It's always interesting to understand the work and reasoning behind the scenes that goes into a sim.
Multi-play is the one feature that could vault Fighting Steel into first place in the hearts of many wargamers. While exchanging shells with the computer in historic scenarios is compelling, matching wits and blasting your friend's fleet via the Internet is much more so. I imagine a lot of lunches are going to earned this way. At present, with the v1.1 patch, Fighting Steel allows four players to duke it out. Internet multi-play works well in the games I've played. The games seem to take a maximum of two hours before all that is left is smoke and regret.
A scenario editor is included, though I haven't tried it out yet. I'll take it on faith that it works. Other value-added components in Fighting Steel are two freebie sims, Steel Panthers III (a tank wargame) and Silent Hunter, arguably the best subsim ever in terms of playability, graphics, and realism (see the review here).
Time for gripes. What could be better? Well, aside from the lackluster program stability, more ambient noise. An actual radar scope to study contacts as they develop. Ships should take more than 40 seconds to sink. And of course, the inclusion of planes and submarines (sigh!), although I accept the creators' arguments on this. And while the graphics are good enough, the motion and coloring of the skies and ocean don't do the game justice. Overall, only the program stability significantly handicaps Fighting Steel. It is fun to play and very challenging.
Computers have allowed wargamers to engage in naval battles that feature more realism, randomness of sporadic events, uniformity of modeled performance, and graphic stimulus than any board game could ever hope to. Fighting Steel was in the works over three years by people who care about historical accuracy, realism, and gaming fulfillment. It has good graphics, a great camera system, and immersive sound. FS drew me in: the more I played it, the more I liked it, except it crashed, a lot! Autosave to the rescue. Although Fighting Steel may lack some refinements, it is by far the most fun you can have in a WWII surface wargame/sim. If they can fix it, or if you can stand seeing the battle come to an abrupt end just as it's getting good, get Fighting Steel and hang on. It's what you always wanted.
People who downloaded Fighting Steel have also downloaded:
Great Naval Battles 5, Destroyer Command, Great Naval Battles 1, Battle of Britain (from TalonSoft), Jutland, Great Naval Battles 4, Great Naval Battles 2: Guadalcanal, Command Aces of The Deep
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